Social Advocates for Youth's Dream Center taking shape in Bennett Valley

Work has moved rapidly at the former Warrack Hospital site in Santa Rosa's Bennett Valley, where a 'Dream Center' for homeless youth is being built.|

No hospital beds or gurneys remain in sight. They were wheeled out months ago to make room for the construction crews that have been putting in new plumbing, windows and skylights at Bennett Valley’s former Warrack Hospital, soon to become home to dozens of disadvantaged young adults.

With two-thirds of the renovations complete, Social Advocates for Youth’s Dream Center is expected to open in about four months.

Work has moved rapidly on the Summerfield Road building, which was donated to SAY by Sutter Health. The interior and exterior remodeling started on the former hospital earlier this spring.

“It’s a dream come true,” SAY’s chief operating officer, Katrina Thurman, said on a recent visit to the site where more than two dozen resident apartments are starting to take shape.

New walls are up, and shower enclosures and grab bars are in. New windows were installed in the studios and dorm-style rooms, many facing a large courtyard.

“I can stand in one of these rooms and imagine just for a moment what it’s going to be like for a young person to walk in,” Thurman said. “(They’ll) be able to close that door behind them and know that it’s theirs, know that they’re home.”

SAY plans to eventually have up to 63 short- and long-term units available for 18- to 24-year-olds previously in foster care or at risk of homelessness, said Cat Cvengros, chief development officer. But they’ll start small and add on over the years, she said.

Caitlin Childs, the agency’s communications manager, said 27 long-term apartments, including five studios with kitchenettes and accessible bathrooms,will be available when the facility opens, likely by December or January. They’ll also have a dozen beds in what will become the short-term housing area, a space that once served as the hospital’s intensive care unit, she said.

The building will be transformed into a colorful, hip and urban space, offering the young tenants a laundry room, full kitchen, dining area, and television and entertainment hub, the agency said.

“We want it to feel comfortable,” said Cvengros, adding that SAY talked to the youth staying at its nearby 25-bed Yulupa Avenue facility, Tamayo Village, about the kinds of amenities that should be included in the new site, where SAY also plans to move offices and services, including health care, counseling and job training.

Cvengros said they’re teaming up with the Sebastopol-based Ceres Community Project to revive the former hospital cafe on the northwest end of the campus, which they hope to open to the public in 2016. Once the large commercial kitchen is remodeled, youth will be able to work there and learn culinary skills, she said.

“It’s a perfect fit for our jobs program,” Cvengros said, adding, “All 18- to 24-year-olds struggle to cook. We want them to learn.”

The project has come a long way, Childs said while exploring the halls last week. She’s been conducting tours and visiting the site at least once a week.

“I couldn’t quite picture it,” she said about the renovations. “About three months ago, they started putting up walls and all of a sudden I could see the space as it was meant to be.”

The fundraising goal for the Dream Center has almost been reached.

SAY raised $8.7 million within the past year. Two weeks ago, an anonymous donor stepped up, offering to match donations up to $500,000, which will help SAY reach the $9.5 million needed for the project, Cvengros said.

The project almost didn’t happen. It faced fierce opposition from some Bennett Valley residents, who feared the facility would bring youth with troubled backgrounds to live in their neighborhood. They contended it would increase crime, lower property values and ?deteriorate the overall quality of life in their otherwise peaceful neighborhood.

SAY scaled back the project and instituted a number of measures to address residents’ concerns. Still, residents challenged the project, filing a lawsuit over the environmental study performed by the city. The suit was dismissed in January.

Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer said he hasn’t heard any complaints from residents in the area since renovations started. He said the housing project is sorely needed in the county, where officials say they’ve seen a 320 percent increase in youth homelessness over the past five years.

“It’s really very exciting. We’ll be open before winter sets in,” Sawyer said.

Cvengros shares the same excitement. SAY’s goal was to make this past winter the last one without the Dream Center for homeless youth, and “it is going to be,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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